Not Sweet Home Alabama

Recently, Scott Douglas III, a civil-rights activist in Alabama and executive director of the Greater Birmingham Ministries, appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss his involvement as a plaintiff in an American civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit against the state of Alabama. The case challenges the state's infamous HB 56 law, which imposes a litany of sanctions on undocumented immigrants. The law:

  • mandates that law enforcement officials obtain proof of citizenship from people they suspect of being in the country illegally;
  • prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving any public benefits;
  • bars undocumented immigrants from attending public colleges or universities;
  • requires public school officials to ascertain student citizenship status and turn in a tally of the number of their students they think are undocumented;
  • prohibits renting property to illegal immigrants;
  • prohibits transporting or harboring illegal immigrants;

When it comes to employment, the law requires large and small businesses to validate the immigration status of employees using the U.S. E-Verify program, prohibits illegal immigrants from applying for work, and nullifies any contracts formed in which one party is an illegal immigrant and the other has direct knowledge of that. The law also requires voters to provide proof of citizenship when registering.

Douglas believes that anti-immigration is the civil rights issue of our time, and compares the way undocumented immigrants are treated today with the way blacks were treated in the Jim Crow South. According to Colbert, he’s even gone so far as to say that “Hispanics are the new Negro.”

“It’s just like the Jim Crow laws,” Douglas says, “where arbitrary laws, capricious in articulation, gives anybody the power over you to abuse you, to hurt you, to harm you.”

“But Martin Luther King said 'I have a dream,' not 'I want a taco,’” Colbert responds in the interview. Douglas explains, “Dr. King said, ‘No document written by human hand should be used to diminish the humanity of any man.’ and this law diminishes humanity.”

Indeed, it’s clear that the real goal of HB 56 is to beat down the immigrants’ spirit to the point that they are miserable enough to leave. And it’s working. After the law was passed in October, hundreds of immigrants fled in the night, yanking their kids out of school, leaving crops to rot on the vine, and shrinking Alabama’s economy, leading to an estimated billions of dollars in loss.

The sticking point for many Americans seems to be this: Isn’t it good that they’re leaving? Why should these so-called “illegal” persons get the dignity of free education and access to healthcare?

Besides the fact that, in 1982, the Supreme Court found that all children living in the United States have the right to a public education, whatever their immigration status, let’s look at this from a human rights standpoint. If we are a country that proclaims to believe in certain unalienable human rights, shouldn’t we recognize that human beings aren’t only the people who’ve had the opportunity to come to this country legally? They’re also the ones who were so persecuted, hungry or otherwise unable to survive in their countries of origin, that they were forced to risk their lives to come here to eke out a living.

The right to education is also listed as a Human Right in article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

How can we sit idly by while innocent children are forced to take part in a “census” that serves to intimidate them and their parents? Why not put our efforts towards real immigration reform instead?

According to Douglas, it was HB 56’s insistence that churches not harbor or aid any immigrants—with items like rides to church or school supplies—that got the attention of African Americans. “It really goes back, if you think about it, to the fugitive slaves acts of the 19th century. The only difference is then they punished you for trying to help somebody escape. Now they punish you for helping somebody stay here.”

But unlike slaves, you might be thinking, illegal immigrants are willfully breaking the law by coming here. To that I would say that when their choice is to come here illegally or watch their family starve, that’s not much of a choice at all. When we attempt to reduce illegal immigration to a simple, black and white, legal or illegal issue, those on the side of the law can develop the belief that undocumented immigrants are beneath human decency, and that’s a recipe for trouble.

What Scott Douglas and other immigrant advocates are trying to get you to see is that dehumanizing treatment of your fellow man isn’t okay just because they weren’t born here, no matter what the law currently says.

A revolution of thinking changed the way we are legally allowed to treat black people in this country. I’m confident that one day Americans will look back at the inhumane treatment of immigrant workers—the low wages, the health risks, the indefinite detentions that tear apart families—and wonder what their unenlightened ancestors were thinking.

“I tell young folks now, if you missed the 60’s, guess what? Now’s your time because now you can make the same kind of contribution that young people made in the 60’s,” Douglas says. “That is to be out front in saying no to this system that will allow people to be treated like they’re worse than animals in being denied their human rights and all in the name of instilling fear in people.”

Perhaps people like Douglas are the only ones who can help legislators and voters see the parallels between the civil rights movement and the need for immigration reform in the United States. For that reason, I am grateful he is lending the cause his name.

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